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Science, Health, Tech

"Range anxiety" remains real for First State electric car drivers

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Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media
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A year ago, University of Delaware and DNREC announced they would work to expand the state’s electric vehicle charging station network, but that network won't be ready until later this year.

So, what’s it like to take an electric car on a long trip in Delaware now -- before the network is in place? Delaware Public Media’s science reporter Eli Chen followed a couple whose vacation plans involve taking their Nissan Leaf from the top of the state all the way down to the bottom.

Patrick and Nancy Martin live in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Wilmington. Patrick’s a technology teacher at a grade school and Nancy’s a school nurse. For their spring break vacation, the couple decided to embark on what normally would be a simple road trip down to the Delaware beaches -- if it weren’t for their vehicle of choice: a Nissan Leaf.
 
The Martins are leasing a 2012 Leaf, which Patrick says can take him 70 to 80 miles when the battery is fully charged. The family usually takes it on short trips, to work or the grocery store, and sometimes Longwood Gardens, but for this trip they will  need to charge along the way -- and will test the state’s electric vehicle charging network.   But as Patrick will tell you, they’ve already had to make a revision to their plans.

“The original plan was to go all the way to the Maryland border and then come back up and charge up at the Cape-May Lewes Ferry and then we got back we would’ve been all charged up,” said Patrick. “With the charging station at the ferry not working.. we actually called the Blue Water House, where we’re going to stay for the night and he lets people charge up overnight if they have an electric vehicle.”

A small issue, but easily fixed. Before the Martins hopped into their Leaf, I made sure to first check Patrick’s range anxiety --or fear the car won’t have enough juice to reach its destination.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll make it,” said Patrick. “I’m estimating 60 mile range, but I’m estimating better than that. The first stop in Dover is in about 54 miles, so that gives us 6 miles of play, but I think I’ll be okay.”

A year ago in February, University of Delaware and DNREC announced that they would be adding more charging stations to reduce range anxiety for electric vehicle drivers.

“There aren’t really that many charging stations in Delaware, so that’s why we proposed the program to the state,” said Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor who has been instrumental in the state’s expansion of its electric vehicle charging stations network.

Kempton says there’s three important factors that determine an ideal location for a charger. First, that it’s accessible to main roads, like 1 or 13. Second, that the chargers be placed no more than 50 miles apart. Third, that  there would be places nearby to go to while the car is charging up.

“Things like restaurants or fast food places,” said Kempton. “Maybe a nature area where you could take a walk. A place where there’s wifi or indoor seating where you could do some email. Those kinds of things we look for as part of a location. In other words, some kind of amenity.”

That’s because it can take around 5 hours for a car to charge up, if it’s hooked up to a level 2 240-volt charger.  That’s the type of charger that’s in the process of being installed in three areas of the state -- first, up north around Wilmington and Newark. Then Smyrna and Dover. And of course, the beaches downstate, especially at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

This basically describes the path the Martins wanted to take on the first day of the trip. But when they arrived in Dover, they hit a couple of snags.

“So here’s a problem! Someone parked in our spot!” Nancy said, as they attempted to pull up.

The Martins had arranged to charge up at the University of Delaware Paradee Center in Dover. Just to note, this isn’t a public charging station--Patrick called them ahead. There’s another charging station in Dover at Del Tech’s Terry Campus, but they wanted one that was a shorter walk to downtown Dover, since they booked a five-hour walking tour that would take them around legislative hall and the museums.

But the minivan blocking the way of their charger could make them a tad late. Patrick went into the Paradee Center and managed to convince the driver of the minivan to move their car out of the way.  And he tells us there’s even a term for this situation.

“When you park in an EV spot, they say you’ve been iced,” said Patrick.

Kathy Harris, a graduate researcher at University of Delaware who’s been analyzing the state’s charging stations network, says that getting “iced” is a real concern, so she’s interested in seeing what social protocol develops to resolve it. For example, she has an idea of what might happen if someone left their electric vehicle charging at a station all day and another car wanted to get in there.

“What we like to think of it as is a laundromat situation where you go to a laundromat and someone’s clothes are in the laundromat,” said Harris. “It becomes social etiquette that you can take those clothes out and put your own clothes in.  I’m curious to see if it’s a similar mindset with EV drivers. If their car is fully charged, is it okay to touch their car and unplug it to be able to plug into your vehicle?”

There are two places to monitor the Nissan Leaf’s charging levels: one is on the dashboard of the leaf itself. The second is on Patrick’s phone. About 15 minutes into their downtown Dover walking tour, Patrick noticed that the charger at the UD Paradee Center wasn’t working. So he located another station using the PlugShare app, a map that displays EV charging stations.

“So luckily, I went on Plugshare.com and I found this Nissan dealership about 1.6 miles away,” said Patrick.

They were relieved that they would be able to make it down to the beaches, but their range anxiety was pretty high in Dover.

“I’m… exhausted,” said Nancy at the Nissan dealership. “I feel a little bit more stressed than we would on a normal trip. You just have to do so much planning, you can’t be spontaneous and you have to be thinking one step ahead.”

The Martins had planned to stay that night at Bewitched and Bedazzled, a Golden Age of Hollywood themed bed and breakfast in Rehoboth Beach. The innkeeper, Inez Conover, let them charge up at the house. Bewitched and Bedazzled is actually one of several hotels in the area that offer this service to electric vehicles. After the Martins reached the Maryland border the next day, they stayed at the Blue Water House in Lewes, where they charged up that night.

When the Martins were done with their trip, we caught up with them to see how the rest of their trip went. As it turned out, the most stressful part was the first leg of the journey.

“It was just stressful because I was relying on something that didn’t work. So I needed a plan B,” said Patrick.

But the rest of the trip went pretty smoothly. Even though there were some almost dire moments, the Martins got to meet new people, visit places in their home state that they’d never been before and validate the reason they got the Nissan Leaf to begin with.

“I know we have to come up with a solution to driving fossil fuel vehicles because they won’t last forever,” said Patrick. “Things like the Leaf aren’t perfect right now and the infrastructure’s not there, but you got to support it to make it happen.”  

A little advice for other Electric vehicle users who want to take their cars out for long rides: it’s probably good to have a Plan B, as well as a Plan C, D and E, while you’re at it. But hopefully that won’t be the case much longer -- at last in Delaware where the state’s charging stations are all expected to be up and running by this summer.

The Martins also kept a blog of their trip, which you can visit at theelectrichighway.me.